If a filmmaker can winch the bindings tight enough, sometimes the rest doesn’t matter. If all there was to Dave Franco’s The Rental, an economical and somewhat depopulated horror movie, was the slow-then-fast accretion of jumps and jolts in an isolated setting, that likely would have been sufficient. But while there’s not a lot more to this scenario than meets the eye, what is there has more texture and humor than one generally expects from a movie in which two couples head off to a creepily beautiful and isolated house for a weekend they keep reassuring each other will be so much fun.
Franco, who co-wrote the screenplay with his Easy collaborator Joe Swanberg, establishes early on that all is not on the up and up with the two couples and their boundaries. At first sighting, tech bro Charlie (Dan Stevens) and his flinty assistant Mina (Sheila Vand) are oozing all over each other with excitement over closing their firm’s seed funding.
When Mina’s boyfriend Josh (Jeremy Allen White) pops in, her switching of affection is instantaneous. Josh’s puppy-dog guilelessness and status as Charlie’s wastrel brother with a violent past ensures that not only is he clueless about Charlie and Mina’s electricity but likely to go off like a bomb once he discovers it. Completing the foursome is Charlie’s wife Michelle (Franco’s wife Alison Brie), a chipper Type A who has all sorts of plans for their weekend.
The four head up the Pacific Coast to a beautiful house shrouded by fog and an assumption of incipient mayhem. The tension-tightening tripwires are snapped into place with rapid efficiency. Josh brings his dog even though no pets are allowed. Having been turned down when she tried to book the place, Mina suggests it was due to her Arabic-sounding last name. When they meet the caretaker Taylor (Toby Huss), a series of red state-blue state misunderstandings and microaggressions spiral out of hand until he zooms away in a pickup truck whose bumper may as well feature a faded Trump 2016 sticker. The stage is fully set for a hipsters-in-peril cat-and-mouse story in which the condescending urbanites discover what happens when they offend the deplorables.
Once Taylor is out of the foursome’s hair, though, the foursome get down to mucking things up all on their own. A baggie of Ecstasy is produced. The hot tub is turned on. The dog gets loose. A misalignment of couples takes place in the shower. Gossip is shared about the brothers’ pasts (infidelities on Charlie’s part and general screwing-up-at-life escapades for Josh). A fun weekend begins to turn awkward. That’s when they discover that there are cameras hidden in the showerheads.
In many horror movies, once the malevolence of the setting has been made clear, there remains a significant amount of celluloid left to run as the characters fight for survival. That is not the case in The Rental, which feels at first more like a gloomily-lit smaller-scale version of Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, a far gentler comedic take on two couples who lose sight of boundaries during a weekend at the shore. Not so here, where the foursome just starts to realize the threat of their surroundings when the trap starts to swing shut.
The audience is clued in just a bit earlier than that, via the ever-handy sinister and distant POV shots that establish Somebody Is Watching. The movie doles out those exterior chills economically, though, keeping its focus on the swiftly degrading mood inside the house. Small resentments spill into larger ones, Charlie’s blithely unthinking privilege (communicated by Stevens as infuriatingly low-key arrogance) butts up against Josh’s sibling rivalry and bad impulse control, and then the discovery of the shower assignation knocks everything sideways. By the time the killer makes his appearance, the audience would be forgiven for thinking there wouldn’t be much left to do.
Although photographed in luxuriously soft tones and keeping the majority of its shocks until the very end, The Rental is nevertheless a chilling piece of work. By keeping its focus primarily on the crumbling sense of trust between these friends, the movie skips past many of the expected tropes, particularly the common stupidities necessary for horror-movie victims to fall prey to the killer in assembly-line fashion.
The clockwork-like manner of the movie’s concluding scenes and its unexpectedly terrifying end-credit sequence feels all the more brutal for its efficient dispatch. There is a sense of happenstance to what comes, as though all the hints about the characters’ various mistakes or entitlements were all just ruses. While that approach can likely make this movie more frightening than many horror franchises—which often go to great lengths to explain the roots of their star killer’s homicidal psychosis and as a result humanize and rationalize their actions—that randomness suggests that The Rental II: The Florida Panhandle is not forthcoming.